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Published on March 26th, 2012 | by William Dahlgreen
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[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="568" caption="Pinatubo erupts in 1991, temporarily reducing global warming"][/caption]

Many Americans think climate scientists are the secret elite of a global conspiracy. In front of walls of computer screens they stroke their beards and ploy to claw money from governments for conjured up projects. Whilst spinning on office chairs they plan to seize state power and dawn a new age of undemocratic scientific control. Pinky and the Brain, for real.

That is a fantasy, however widely it’s believed. Yet there is logic in its madness. In the land of the free, it’s thought legitimacy resides in the nature of the justifications offered for coercive policy. Democratic justifications are naturally majoritarian; if a policy is consented to by a majority, it is legitimate. Thus Americans can oppose climate legislations, like restrictions or taxes on carbon usage, on grounds of legitimacy; they require people to change their lives in ways the majority would not consent to.

According to this reasoning, climate scientists are vessels of illegitimacy. They’re given taxpayers money, when taxpayers don’t consent to giving them money. They’re given power, when the people haven’t agreed to giving them power. They are the enemies of ‘freedom’. Yet oddly they’re its direct consequence.

Many climate scientists now argue that the only feasible way to prevent climate change is through geoengineering. If we released millions of tons of Sulfur Dioxide particles into the stratosphere, scientists think the particles would reflect the suns rays and quickly cool the planet. There may be huge negative effects – sulphuric acid rain, ozone depletion and other unpredictable consequences - but they could be offset by the devastation caused by rising sea levels. In 1991 this happened naturally, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted. It launched 20 million tons of Sulfur Dioxide into the atmosphere and cooled the planet by half a percent. One percent is all that’s needed to begin to reverse global warming.

If we follow the American argument through, the only legitimate way to tackle climate change will be geophysical. This year Obama redirected $6 billion of ‘unconsenting’ taxpayers money to tackle global warming; releasing Sulfur Dioxide costs one sixth of that. With Public opinion in America being the way it is, geoengineering may become the only method with a public mandate.

It’s an odd conclusion that a people who view climate scientists as untrustworthy meddlers should be lead by their principles to rely on them. This paradox is proof, perhaps, that public opinion is far from reasoned. One way out of the muddle may be, then, to argue that the unreason of public opinion shows it can be justifiably overridden. According to this argument, governments should ignore the public mandate, use their superior access to information and make decisions for their peoples own good. Some really believe this. But Americans are right to oppose them. This is paternalism or, as it’s called in philosophy, perfectionism.

Laying things out like this leads to a false dilemma: either governments push for carbon restriction or taxation policy and coerce their citizens without consent, or they take heed of legitimacy and wait it out until the only means of survival is geophysical. This is a common place to get stuck. But there’s an often-forgotten resting point for legitimacy.

Consent is only one source of legitimacy. Another is our duty to ensure justice is done. We can fulfil our duty by accepting reasonably just laws as legitimately authoritative, because those laws best promote conditions of justice. Even when we’re unsure if those laws are the ones uniquely satisfied by justice, or that we’d explicitly consent to them, it is not illegitimate for the state to impose laws that ensure justice is done. It’s true that a justice-based argument for or against geoengineering may not be forthcoming, so the duty-based approach might not seem to offer much guidance here. But the outlook is not so bleak. Thinking about legitimacy this way takes the sting out of the ‘if I wouldn’t consent to it, you can’t tax me for it’ view, that’s abundant here as well as in the states. And not only do the negatives outweigh the benefits of geoengineering (so far), the consent-based opposition to taxation for climate policy is unfounded too. It‘s clear then: to reverse global warming, tax away.

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Clearing a Climate of Disagreement

Pinatubo erupts in 1991, temporarily reducing global warming

Many Americans think climate scientists are the secret elite of a global conspiracy. In front of walls of computer screens they stroke their beards and ploy to claw money from governments for conjured up projects. Whilst spinning on office chairs they plan to seize state power and dawn a new age of undemocratic scientific control. Pinky and the Brain, for real.

That is a fantasy, however widely it’s believed. Yet there is logic in its madness. In the land of the free, it’s thought legitimacy resides in the nature of the justifications offered for coercive policy. Democratic justifications are naturally majoritarian; if a policy is consented to by a majority, it is legitimate. Thus Americans can oppose climate legislations, like restrictions or taxes on carbon usage, on grounds of legitimacy; they require people to change their lives in ways the majority would not consent to.

According to this reasoning, climate scientists are vessels of illegitimacy. They’re given taxpayers money, when taxpayers don’t consent to giving them money. They’re given power, when the people haven’t agreed to giving them power. They are the enemies of ‘freedom’. Yet oddly they’re its direct consequence.

Many climate scientists now argue that the only feasible way to prevent climate change is through geoengineering. If we released millions of tons of Sulfur Dioxide particles into the stratosphere, scientists think the particles would reflect the suns rays and quickly cool the planet. There may be huge negative effects – sulphuric acid rain, ozone depletion and other unpredictable consequences – but they could be offset by the devastation caused by rising sea levels. In 1991 this happened naturally, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted. It launched 20 million tons of Sulfur Dioxide into the atmosphere and cooled the planet by half a percent. One percent is all that’s needed to begin to reverse global warming.

If we follow the American argument through, the only legitimate way to tackle climate change will be geophysical. This year Obama redirected $6 billion of ‘unconsenting’ taxpayers money to tackle global warming; releasing Sulfur Dioxide costs one sixth of that. With Public opinion in America being the way it is, geoengineering may become the only method with a public mandate.

It’s an odd conclusion that a people who view climate scientists as untrustworthy meddlers should be lead by their principles to rely on them. This paradox is proof, perhaps, that public opinion is far from reasoned. One way out of the muddle may be, then, to argue that the unreason of public opinion shows it can be justifiably overridden. According to this argument, governments should ignore the public mandate, use their superior access to information and make decisions for their peoples own good. Some really believe this. But Americans are right to oppose them. This is paternalism or, as it’s called in philosophy, perfectionism.

Laying things out like this leads to a false dilemma: either governments push for carbon restriction or taxation policy and coerce their citizens without consent, or they take heed of legitimacy and wait it out until the only means of survival is geophysical. This is a common place to get stuck. But there’s an often-forgotten resting point for legitimacy.

Consent is only one source of legitimacy. Another is our duty to ensure justice is done. We can fulfil our duty by accepting reasonably just laws as legitimately authoritative, because those laws best promote conditions of justice. Even when we’re unsure if those laws are the ones uniquely satisfied by justice, or that we’d explicitly consent to them, it is not illegitimate for the state to impose laws that ensure justice is done. It’s true that a justice-based argument for or against geoengineering may not be forthcoming, so the duty-based approach might not seem to offer much guidance here. But the outlook is not so bleak. Thinking about legitimacy this way takes the sting out of the ‘if I wouldn’t consent to it, you can’t tax me for it’ view, that’s abundant here as well as in the states. And not only do the negatives outweigh the benefits of geoengineering (so far), the consent-based opposition to taxation for climate policy is unfounded too. It‘s clear then: to reverse global warming, tax away.

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About the Author

William Dahlgreen

Will is a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester, reading for a Master’s degree in Political Theory. A paper he wrote last year was accepted by the Manchester Centre for Political Theory, for a presentation at their conference of world-leading philosophers. He was the youngest and only pre-PhD contributor. During the university funding crisis he ran a Social Sciences Forum where 300 students, staff and members of the public debated and celebrated their subjects with a panel of renowned professors. Will wants to relate the ‘big questions’ of political philosophy to real-world issues. He believes philosophy gets too abstract because it’s isolated from the public, and real-world issues get muddled and full of rhetoric when they’re isolated from philosophy. He feels they ought to be combined and that this is the best way to engage the younger generation – everyone cares about their freedom; too few know that’s what politics is about.



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